The Consul’s File
“The war did not destroy the English—it fixed them in fatal attitudes. The Japanese were destroyed and out of that destruction came different men; only the loyalties were old—the rest was new.” Thus the thirty-six-year-old New Englander Paul Theroux, pursuing his studies of the post-Imperial British, this time in Malaysia, Somerset Maugham country. The short stories in The Consul’s File should be popular. How to cope, or more precisely how not to cope, with losing an empire—for an updated Somerset Maugham the subject has everything: nostalgia, pathos, irony, and (not too frequently of course, but the more tellingly) gusts of delicious guilt and right-thinking anticolonialism. Even the appropriate tone, scenario, and idiom are common stock—credits to Graham Greene. Given these advantages, an adroit practitioner like Paul Theroux could hardly go wrong. Nor does he; The Consul’s File can be recommended as a thoroughly good read. And yet it is, or it ought to be, intolerably depressing. Near the end the narrator, an American winding up an unnecessary consulate in an unimportant town, sums up about Malaysia:
Is it possible to put down roots here? I don’t think so. The Chinese won’t, the Tamils can’t, the Malays pretend they have them already, but they don’t. Countries like this are possessed on the one hand by their own strangling foliage, and on the other by outside interests—business, international pressures (as long as the country has something to sell or the money to buy). Between jungle and viability, there is nothing—just the hubbub of struggling mercenaries, native and expatriate, staking their futile claims.
OK, this is the narrator’s voice, not the author’s. But none of the lives that the stories introduce us to—of Anglicized Malays and Indians, Americanized Chinese, Americans passing through, British (and the odd American) planters, doctors, and government surveyors and so on—ever escapes this dispiriting diagnosis of their situation as futile, insignificant, and undignified. Even the human and marital relations among them, not just the inter-racial ones either, are blighted and doomed for the same inexorable reasons. Theroux has no difficulty keeping his distance from Maugham (“…he encouraged expatriates to pity themselves. It is the essence of the romantic lie”); but one wonders about a greater expert in the romantic lie, Conrad, who certainly knew the lie inside out but knew also that sometimes the lie was necessary and could be heroic.
Of course the author of Lord Jim and An Outcast of the Islands did not have the dubious advantage of knowledgeable sub-Marxist journalism to tell him that the economic laws which determine colonial and ex-colonial dependencies are indeed inexorable, and reach everywhere. And so he could find for some of his characters a margin of freedom and dignity, whereas in Theroux’s book the one character who comes near attaining to either is, significantly and sourly, a Japanese. The only shaft of light that breaks in upon the bleak squalor of this society comes through the “strangling foliage” in the form of incursions of the supernatural—a device which might seem less of a cop-out if the Christian missionaries who make fleeting appearances were allowed themselves to be supernaturalists, not just humanitarian social workers.
To make no more bones about it, I think Paul Theroux is bad medicine for any Englishman who even half attends to what he is reading, and only a little less bad for any American who cares about what England has become and what may be expected of her. He nourishes some of our worst weaknesses and saps what remains of our strength. But in saying so I rely on my own conviction that what has been weakest about us for a long time is the rationalistic lie, not the romantic one. In any case, however, are these the demands that can be made of “art”? And isn’t Paul Theroux the storyteller an artist? That’s as may be; I speak of the effect he will have.
In the same philistine spirit I find myself shaking my head about The Ice Age, though it’s altogether more ambitious and earnest. Margaret Drabble has no doubt read Henry James’s Prefaces. But if she has, she has suppressed the knowledge for the sake of this book—a book that one has to call a novel, though it is written as if James had never written his agonized disquisitions about, and experiments in, composition and narrator’s point of view. So far as I am concerned, no apology is called for. James didn’t write his novels, or the prefaces to them, with any sense that either of the English-speaking cultures he wrote for was at a point of crisis. Margaret Drabble writes of and for British culture on the assumption that its state is very critical indeed—critical enough for an artist such as herself to dispense with many of the formal niceties of her art, so as to speak urgently and directly. To my mind, that’s a reasonable view to take. In fact the question is whether for the British the present historical moment isn’t even more critical than she seems to think.
Early in The Consul’s File somebody speaks up for Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” But it is an American who speaks, and one who is very quickly and comprehensively presented as inadequate. Thus Kipling’s case for imperialism is invoked only to be written off, and we are saved the embarrassment of having it taken seriously even for a moment. Kipling doesn’t come into Margaret Drabble’s reckoning, and doesn’t have to, because in The Ice Age the freezing chill that began at the colonial extremities has spread through the tissues and is attacking the heart: her subject isn’t the British Empire, it isn’t even Britain, but very insistently and nakedly it is England.
Margaret Drabble spares us no embarrassments at all. From Milton’s “noble and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep,” through Wordsworth’s “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee…,” to the Shakespearean chestnuts about Henry V before Agincourt, and “this sceptred isle set in a silver sea,” Margaret Drabble sounds every patriotic stop, and without any irony at all. This is new, this is bold. Think only of the defensive deprecations, the ironical contortions, the vast and anxious qualifications with which such sentiments and such resonances were alluded to by Forster or Virginia Woolf, by Auden, by Waugh even in his later books, or by Angus Wilson.
We have been accustomed to greeting such nakedly patriotic sentiments about England with uneasy laughter or corrosive mockery; they belonged, we thought, only in the mouths of stuffed shirts pontificating from civic or institutional platforms, and on the pages only of middlebrow pulp. To have someone so obviously sophisticated as Margaret Drabble come right out and say these things once again, say them out loud without so much as a blush—it is disconcerting, it is embarrassing. And my guess is that we’re going to have lots more of it, because already there are other English voices taking this sort of risk. It is admirable, I think. Risk-taking is always admirable, and in my lifetime the best English writers haven’t risked enough, but have made a sort of insular speciality out of being guarded, armored against ridicule. It would be quite wrong to dismiss this newly vulnerable note in English writing as merely a symptom of the temporary euphoria of the Queen’s Jubilee, or as a parochial English reaction to the assertiveness of Scotch and Welsh demands for more autonomy. The new patriotism is a response to crisis. The crisis is real, a crisis not of economics but of morale; and the patriotism, in Margaret Drabble and others, is an appropriate and honorable response, not an easy one.
And yet, and yet…. It is embarrassing. I found The Ice Age a deeply embarrassing book. And I don’t think I’m embarrassed merely at finding myself with my pants down and my patriotism showing. For after all, Milton and Shakespeare and Wordsworth are exalted company; they take some living up to. By which I don’t mean that Margaret Drabble is out of her league, getting above herself; she’s no Shakespeare, she knows it and we know it, and that’s no problem. No, it isn’t the writer but her characters that can’t measure up, embarrassingly inadequate to the great names and the great visions that are flashed on to the backdrop behind them. Quite simply, the representative men and women that this novelist sets in motion—they are representative, and are meant to be, in a strikingly old-fashioned and deliberate way—don’t get from me, nor I reckon do they deserve from anyone, the affection and the respect that Margaret Drabble asks for on their behalf, and seems confident of getting. Here they are, these people, as seen supposedly through the eyes of one of them, the central character Anthony Keating:
He and his clever friends had been reared as surely, conditioned as firmly, as those…who had entered the old progression, learned the old rules, played the old games. Oh yes, they had dabbled and trifled and cracked irreverent jokes; they had thrown out the mahogany and bought cheap stripped pine, they had slept with one another’s wives, and divorced their own, they had sent their children to state schools, they had acquired indeterminate accents, they had made friends from unthinkable quarters, they had encouraged upstarts…, they had worn themselves out and contorted themselves trying to understand a new system, a new egalitarian culture, the new illiterate visual television age.
They had tried: they had made efforts. They had learned to help their working wives to cook and care for the children; they had learned to live without servants, to give elaborate dinner parties without the white cloths and cut glass and silver cutlery of their grandparents, they had learned to survive broken nights with screaming babies, broken nights with weeping, angry, emancipated, emaciated wives. They had learned—academics, teachers, and parents alike—to condemn the examination system that had elevated them and brought them security: they had tried to learn new tricks. But where were the new tricks? They had produced no new images, no new style, merely a cheap strained exhausted imitation of the old one. Nothing had changed. Where was the new bright classless enterprising future of Great Britain? In jail with Len Wincobank, mortgaged to the hilt with North Sea Oil.
The character called Len Wincobank we can look at in a minute. Except for him and his girl friend Maureen, all the central characters of The Ice Age are of the sort characterized, with admirable verve and accuracy, in this paragraph. I know these people well. They are the people I consort with when I am in England, and for some of them I have affection and sympathy. But when all is said and done, can their struggles and sufferings (“they had worn themselves out…contorted themselves…. They had tried…made efforts…. They had learned…”) really measure up to the sceptred isle set in a silver sea, or to Milton’s “eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam”? Surely the difference of scale is glaringly, embarrassingly obvious. Margaret Drabble of course is aware of this. It would even be true to say that the discrepancy between these lives and her epigraphs from Milton and Wordsworth is what The Ice Age is all about. But she isn’t aware of it enough. If she isn’t ironical about Milton’s and Wordsworth’s England, equally she isn’t ironical—or only very mildly and indulgently—about “they had worn themselves out….” And so her cast of characters just can’t sustain, can’t stand up under, the weight of sorrow and aspiration that, however sincerely and fervently, she wants to express through them.
It is after all a very restricted cast for her purposes, drawn from a very narrow range of English society. What of that vast majority of the English people of all classes who do not want, and never did want, a future that should be “classless”? What of all of those Englishmen of all classes—also, I suspect, a majority—to whom it would be unthinkable that they should sleep with each other’s wives, or divorce the wives that they have? What of those English people of all age groups who have a longer historical perspective than any of Margaret Drabble’s characters, and who accordingly do not see (as all her characters do) the 1960s as a great good time from which the Seventies are a striking and unaccountable falling away? If indeed the present deep freeze is temporary, and Milton’s eagle will some day soar out of it more splendid than ever—and Ms. Drabble fervently, not to say stridently, believes this—may not those eagle energies come from these English people whom she ignores, and may indeed be ignorant of, rather than from the well-meaning but muddle-headed and unproductive Englishmen that she deals with?
This is the possibility that she may think she has allowed for, in Len Wincobank and his mistress Maureen Kirby. These are her two proletarians. But just there is the trouble; it’s with these two figures that we realize how, like Anthony Keating and Alison Murray who soliloquize at center stage, Ms. Drabble analyzes British society according to a diluted Marxist model. It’s all very well for her characters to be “representative”; but it is not all right for Anthony and Alison to represent the middle classes (despite the innumerable middle-class English people who aren’t like them in the least), or for Len and Maureen to represent the proletariat (despite the innumerable English proletarians who aren’t, as they are, vulgar). I’m afraid her treatment of Len and Maureen is offensive, in a way that we have come to expect from middle-class novelists ever since Forster created Leonard Bast in Howard’s End. Ms. Drabble is even more indulgent to Len and Maureen than she is to Anthony and Alison, with an indulgence that comes out (though I’m sure it’s the last thing she intended) as patronizing. Because these two are proletarian by origin, she tolerates from them behavior that she would not tolerate from people in her own social station. The truth is, on the evidence she herself puts before us, that Len and Maureen are socially worthless, parasites, vulgarians vulgarizing everything they touch.
Len is a tycoon, a real-estate speculator (as is, on a much more modest scale, Anthony Keating also). And there is in The Ice Age a vivid and memorable description of what it is like to find oneself without warning in one of the gigantesque rebuilt city centers that men like Len Wincobank have created, in alliance with the slide-rule bureaucratic planners of City Hall. In Birmingham and Bristol, that ancient port of merchant-princes, I experienced this very summer what Margaret Drabble brilliantly conveys: the as it must seem deliberate affront to the entire nervous system which these monstrously rational cityscapes deliver, the panicky disorientation which their vast ramps and subways and circling traffic channels induce. And yet for perpetrating these insults to the citizen and his human scale, the Len Wincobanks are somehow to be exonerated—for no better reason, it seems, than that they know no better. One may be excused for thinking that England’s Ice Age will not be over until Englishmen stop forgiving each other so readily and so often.
The cityscape is seen through the eyes of Alison Murray, who seems to be of all the characters the one nearest to Margaret Drabble herself. The last sentences of the book are about her: “Alison there is no leaving. Alison can neither live nor die. Alison has Molly.Her life is beyond imagining. It will not be imagined. Britain will recover, but not Alison Murray.” Alison’s Molly is a child born with cerebral palsy. Alison’s responsibility to Molly, we are to understand, prevents her from finding God, whom her lover Anthony has at the end somewhat nebulously found while captive in an East European prison camp. We have already heard that Molly and her incapacitated schoolmates are instances of “God’s inhumanity to man.” Margaret Drabble undoubtedly sees something of the illogic of expecting a divine being to be either human or humane, but I’m not sure she has seen all of it.
The Ice Age is an embarrassing book, and it betrays more than its author intended about the present state of England and the English. It is, though, a brave and bold book, one that English men and women can be grateful for and even, though awkwardly, proud of.